The following is a reflection based on my experience observing a Zoom hearing in housing court. Attending this hearing was part of an assignment for my clinic, the COVID-19 Relief Housing Clinic. The case I observed is not that of a client of our firm, but simply that of a litigant who virtually appeared in Zoom court that morning.
When I watch courtroom scenes on television and in movies, I am captivated by the persuasive oration, surprise evidence, and yes, the juicy drama. Superficially, attending a status hearing in Housing Court via Zoom was not so different from watching a televised courtroom experience. After all, I opened up my laptop and sat down at my desk to watch the scenes unfold through my screen. But the experience was nothing like watching a media portrayal of a courtroom drama. Because this wasn’t Netflix, and the spectacle wasn’t written with the sole function of my entertainment. That morning, I left feeling the opposite of entertained. It’s a lot less fun when the characters aren’t just reciting their scripts on a stage. It’s hard to find enjoyment in the unfolding of real problems of real people, especially when you can sense that there may not be a happy ending.
In my eyes, the protagonist of today’s narrative was the defendant tenant (let’s call her J), setting forth her case for numerous civil damages against her landlord, C. Particularly, she was experiencing various issues with heat, both in a bedroom and with her oven. This made me remember my own apartment last winter, when the heat was stuck at 64 degrees for less than a day. I was angry, less so because the cold was intolerable, and more so because I feel I have an entrenched right to this utility at all times.
J was situated in her apartment, wearing what looked like a bathrobe. She had attended the hearing after getting three hours of sleep after her overnight shift at work. She looked stressed and overwhelmed. It was like the frustration I feel when I have to stay up late for RA duty, but still have an 8 am class the next day.
The one year-mark of the Covid-19 shutdown that forced BC Law to fundamentally change its operations came and went last week. This pandemic-focused world has created realities that none of us could have ever predicted, simultaneously shutting doors and forcing new opportunities to emerge in their wake. The only thing that has remained constant over the past year is the uncertainty of what the near-future will bring.
BC Law has done its best to adapt. A unique example of this is the emergence of the Covid Relief Housing Clinic earlier this semester. What began as a Summer 2020 effort to help people in the greater Boston area receive unemployment benefits has transformed to a semester-long clinic opportunity, addressing urgent legal issues regarding housing and upholding the original goal to meet the timely legal needs of those within our community.
I spoke with Professor Ana Rivera, who runs the clinic, to discuss the creation and utilization of this new addition to BC Law’s Experiential Learning Center.
1. When and how did the idea emerge for this clinic?
The idea for a clinic focused exclusively on housing came to me in the fall 2020, when the federal and local moratoria on evictions were scheduled to expire. There was a great concern that the number of eviction matters would spike exponentially, as workers in the retail, hotel, and restaurant industries continued to struggle either to find new work or to receive unemployment insurance benefits. It seemed right from a social justice perspective to divert resources to this particular problem. I contacted WATCH CDC, a family, housing, and adult education advocacy organization in Waltham, MA, with which our Civil Litigation Clinic has collaborated in the past, and proposed a partnership with BC Law to identify and provide legal assistance to Waltham tenants facing housing insecurity as a result of Covid-19. Having such an intimate relationship with tenants in Waltham, WATCH, through its executive director Daria Gere, was acutely aware of the need and embraced the opportunity. With the support of Professors Judy McMorrow and Renee Jones, the idea was realized.
One thing that I’ve really loved about BC Law is the opportunity to develop lawyering skills outside of the classroom. Right now, 2Ls are in the midst of competing in the prestigious Wendell F. Grimes Moot Court competition. In honor of this notable law school experience, I sat down with Sarah Nyaeme, President of the Board of Student Advisors (and my roommate), to learn more about the competitions offered at BC Law.
Tell us a little bit about the Board of Student Advisors and what role the BSA plays in law school academic competitions.
The Board of Student Advisors is the student-led organization that helps facilitate and run the various advocacy programs at BC. These programs include the ABA Negotiation and Client Counseling competitions, Moot Court, and Mock Trial. The BSA includes both 2L and 3L co-chairs who are assigned to specific competitions. In addition, we have 1L representatives who shadow the co-chairs and assist with the behind-the-scenes work.
Can you provide us with an overview of the various competitions?
Deciding where to go to law school is no easy task. If you are anything like I was, you may still be deciding if a city or traditional campus is right for you. You also may even be wondering if you are more of an East Coast or West Coast person (or something in between). Well, lucky for you, BC Law is hosting Admitted Student Month, which kicked off on March 1! Throughout the month of March, BC will be hosting a ton of live and recorded content, which you can find out about here.
Although this virtual world is not what any of us hoped for, both the administration and students have tried to find ways to connect with prospective students and share why we love BC Law, while answering any questions future students may have. One unique way that I have particularly enjoyed meeting prospective students is through the virtual coffee chats.
Just last week, my roommate and I hosted one over Zoom and we received a number of good questions. It immediately made me realize that many of the questions we were receiving were largely due to the fact that students can’t visit campus (if this is true for you, be sure to check out the brand new virtual tour.) Although coffee chats are still taking place throughout March (and you can sign up here), I thought it would be helpful to provide a roundup of some of the questions we’ve received, as well as our responses.
BC Law places a heavy emphasis on experiential learning, beginning your 1L year. But as a 2L and 3L, you have the opportunity to dive even deeper into practice through externships or clinic experiences. You can learn more about the clinic offerings at BC here, but because I decided to take the externship route, I’ll reflect on that experience.
Through BC’s Semester-in-Practice program, students are given the opportunity to secure job placements in Boston or beyond for course credit. The number of hours per week depends on the placement and the student, and all students must participate in a weekly seminar as well. I decided to spend last semester at Tripadvisor, where I worked (virtually due to COVID) 4 days a week.
“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” – Saint Francis de Sales
In the law, and especially in litigation, it can seem like being gentle has no place. The adversarial system is set up like a zero-sum game, and it can feel like softness is in direct contrast with winning in the courtroom. However, in a profession where we lawyers are painted as aggressive and combative, perhaps gentleness is a silent strength, particularly in our relationships with our clients.
I’m in the COVID-19 Housing Relief Clinic this semester, and we spent this first week in trainings. During these training sessions, we conducted role-play situations, both interviewing and counseling “clients.” In our training, the “clients” were just our supervising professors and the situations were merely hypothetical. Yet, these simulations reflected the very types of cases and clients that, as student attorneys at the BC Legal Services Lab, we might see this semester. For example, some of these scenarios included a wife trying to keep custody of her son in a divorce case with her potentially abusive husband or a landlord using unjust practices to force evictions.
At first, I wondered how useful this training would be. After all, how much is there to learn about just talking to clients? Turns out the answer, is a lot.
Over the decade and a half since its start, The Boston College Innocence Program has amassed an astonishing reputation for its work in innocence advocacy and wrongful convictions. Bolstering an impressive record, BCIP both represents innocent individuals and works with policymakers regarding legislative reform, quite literally changing lives every step of the way.
This year in particular, BCIP has secured an impressive amount of exonerations and releases, using new evidence and instances of misconduct, with three major victories in 2020 alone:
To put it simply, I did not have the summer I expected. Like many of my peers, my summer associate program was cancelled, I had to put vacation plans on hold, and I was forced to think about the post-grad job market way more than I wanted. But this unexpected turn of events (thank you, COVID-19) led to an incredible opportunity at Citrix.
During the fall of my 2L year, I took a Privacy Law course with Peter Lefkowitz, Chief Privacy & Digital Risk Officer at Citrix. I had gotten to know Peter pretty well over the course of the semester, and had gone to him for career advice before. So, when I discovered I suddenly had no summer plans, I took a chance, reached out to Peter, and asked if he had any suggestions for how to gain privacy-related experience while I had this downtime. Lucky for me, Citrix was in the middle of launching its first legal internship program, and Peter had the perfect opportunity.
The view from the twentieth floor of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office building is incredible. From the executive conference room you can see clear to the Heights; BC’s Gasson bell tower rises above the surrounding suburbs. From my desk, I could peek out onto Boston Harbor or the Charles River, depending on which way I turned. One day I caught glimpses of the tall ships taking their annual jaunt through the harbor. Viewed through a metaphorical lens the height of the AG’s office, which towers above the statehouse next door, hints at the independence, responsibility, and power bestowed on the office. In Massachusetts, the AG (who is elected, not appointed, and is currently Maura Healey) both protects and enforces the state’s laws, and stands up for its citizens when the federal government’s actions threaten them. Every year, a select few third-year BC Law students get to peek into and experience the extensive and demanding work behind fulfilling those duties. Last year, I had the fortune of being one of those students.
Lawyers have their own language. It might be a little frustrating at times, but that is the reason we spend three painful years in law school learning how to think, speak, and write like lawyers. By the time we pass the bar, we have been equipped with a roadmap that allows us to navigate the complex legal arena. Of course, we are not the only profession with its own language. In fact, almost all professions have terminology that is commonly understood by those within the profession, but confusing to those outside of it.
This year I am participating in Boston College’s Juvenile Rights Advocacy program, and I am busy learning yet another language. Do you know what the acronym IEP stands for? Have you ever heard the terms FAPE? What is the difference between the BSEA and OCR? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, don’t worry, many people don’t know them. IEP stands for Individual Education Plan, and as the name suggests, it’s an educational term. The BSEA is a court that is used to resolve education disputes; it stands for Bureau of Special Education Appeals. The OCR stands for Office of Civil Rights, which is another court that can be used for certain types of education related claims. FAPE is a legal term that stands Free Appropriate Public Education, which is a federal right and typically the basis for the claims that would be brought in front of the BSEA or OCR. As for CRA, it is not strictly an education term, however, many children who require specialized education services also require the help that a CRA grants. CRA stands for Child Requiring Assistance, and parents file them with the courts when they need the courts help to supervise their children.